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24 years after Kosovo, the U.S. is asking Serbia's president not to side with Putin

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

It's been more than two decades since Western forces intervened in Kosovo to try to stop Serbian forces from slaughtering ethnic Albanians there. As NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports, Kosovo remains a Balkan flashpoint, and you will hear that a couple of minutes into this report.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: When Yugoslavia began to splinter in the early '90s, Kosovo was a province of Serbia with a majority-ethnic Albanian population.

IGOR MARKOVIC: So after the Declaration of Independence in 2008, Kosovo became an Albanian majority country.

BEARDSLEY: Political analyst Igor Markovic says that means in Kosovo today, Serbs make up only around 4% of the population.

MARKOVIC: So basically, the places have switched.

BEARDSLEY: Serbia firmly rejects Kosovo's independence, which means the governments of Kosovo and Serbia have diametrically opposed visions of Kosovo's future. Srdjan Simonovic is a lawyer for NGO The Human Centre in Northern Kosovo, where most ethnic Serbs live. He says Kosovo Serbs feel like pawns in a game between Belgrade and Pristina.

SRDJAN SIMONOVIC: Should they belong to Kosovo? Or should they belong to Serbia? At the end, they're deceived from both sides. I mean, Pristina is not transparent enough. Belgrade is not transparent at all. So the losers are ordinary people.

BEARDSLEY: Kosovo Serbs are politically controlled by Belgrade, says Simonovic. And because of disagreements with Pristina, Serbian Prime Minister (ph) Aleksandar Vucic instructed them to boycott Kosovo's recent municipal elections. That's how four ethnic Albanians got elected mayor in ethnic Serb-majority towns in Northern Kosovo at the end of May.

ISMIR ZEQIRI: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: Ismir Zeqiri is one of them. He remembers trying to enter the town hall in Zubin Potok to begin his term.

ZEQIRI: (Through interpreter) Of course, I was surprised when I arrived and about 50 people were blocking the entrance. All the while, more and more people were coming out as they sounded the city alarm.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Non-English language spoken, chanting).

BEARDSLEY: Hundreds of Serbs gathered demanding the newly elected mayors leave. Civilians and scores of NATO soldiers, which are still in Kosovo two decades later to help keep the peace, were injured in clashes. It was the worst violence in nearly 20 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF TEAR GAS GRENADE EXPLODING)

BEARDSLEY: Ivana Stradner is a Balkans expert with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. She says part of the problem stems from Serbian Prime Minister Vucic, who is in trouble at home.

IVANA STRADNER: So in order to remain in power, he always needs to escalate the crisis in Kosovo and then to position himself in the center and as someone, you know, who can solve the problems.

BEARDSLEY: Kosovo's Prime Minister Albin Kurti has also been fanning the flames of nationalism.

[CROSSTALK]

BEARDSLEY: Last week, there was a brawl in Kosovo's parliament. Kurti got a glass of water thrown in his face. His critics say he's strained relations with Kosovo's main backers, the U.S. and EU. Kurti blames Kosovo's problems on what he calls the lawlessness in Northern Kosovo. He spoke to NPR.

ALBIN KURTI: The key problem we have is these violent extremists and criminal gangs financially supported and politically ordered from Belgrade to destabilize Kosovo.

BEARDSLEY: The U.S. has poured more than $2 billion into Kosovo over the last two decades and built a massive new embassy in Pristina. But the Biden administration has taken an unusually hard line with Kurti. Stradner says that's because America fears two things - renewed conflict and Serbian Prime Minister Vucic and his close ties with Russia.

STRADNER: They are really afraid of escalating. They are very afraid of Vucic going towards - pivoting to Russia. And they will do anything possible just to appease him.

BEARDSLEY: Stradner says many naively believe Vucic is moving toward the West. But she says Serbia is a historic ally of Russia, and Vucic will continue to play both sides.

[CROSSTALK]

BEARDSLEY: Two months after the violence, Serb citizens are still gathering in front of the town hall of Zvecan in Northern Kosovo - this time, a peaceful, around-the-clock sit-in until the ethnic Albanian mayor resigns. Not far from where they're gathered, there are Z's scrawled on a wall in support of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Stradner says Russia would love to see chaos erupt in the Balkans.

STRADNER: For several reasons - to humiliate the United States, to show that NATO is nothing more than a paper tiger, and, of course, to distract the West from the war in Ukraine.

BEARDSLEY: Kurti has said he will allow new mayoral elections, and most Kosovo Serbs say they will participate if Belgrade gives the green light. But Stradner is pessimistic. She says the Balkans are once again a tinder box as nationalism flares in both Serbia and Kosovo.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Kosovo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.